From Herb to Medicine: Forms of Herbal Products

Obviously, herbal products start as plants. They make the journey from plant to medicine by being either harvested from the wild (called wild-crafting) or grown for the purpose of creating an herbal medicine. Keep in mind that many herbs are endangered in the wild from either overuse or destruction of habitat. Some of the herbs that are currently at risk in the wild include American ginseng, black cohosh, bloodroot, blue cohosh, echinacea, goldenseal, helonias root, kava kava, lady’s slipper orchid, osha, partridge berry, peyote, slippery elm, sundew, trillium bethroot, true unicorn, Venus’s flytrap, and wild yam.

If you wish to work with herbs, don’t search in the wild to obtain them. Instead, create an herb garden and grow and harvest the herbs yourself. After harvesting an herb, dry it to reduce the moisture content without destroying the plant’s active chemical compounds. The herb should be dried by spreading it loosely on a rack so that air can circulate around it to prevent mold. The procedure for harvesting and preparing each herb varies with the time of year and the part of the plant that will be used for medicinal purposes. Herbs should be stored in dark glass containers with tight-fitting lids, away from sunlight and heat.

Besides the tablets, capsules, syrups, and lozenges that may be available commercially, common forms of herbal products include teas, tinctures, extracts, and external forms.

Herbal Teas (Water-Based Extracts)

In China, herbal teas are prescribed by practitioners for specific illnesses and are made from about 12 different herbs, all of them balancing and complementing each other to prevent side effects. The practitioner gives the patient a bag of medicinal leaves, roots, and other substances and tells the patient to add water, simmer like a soup, and drink as directed throughout the day. Herbal teas are gaining popularity here in the United States. You can now find them in health food stores, grocery stores, and restaurants. You can make your own tea bags by placing 1 teaspoon of dried herb into a tea bag and then sealing it with a hot iron. Or you can prepare teas using a tea ball, tea strainer, or prepared tea bags.

For an adult, the usual recommended dose of tea is one teacupful. For an acute condition the patient may drink small amounts of tea more often, up to three cups a day. Chronic conditions may warrant three cups a day as well. For a child, the dosage may be calculated by using Young’s rule (for children age 2 and over) or Clark’s rule as shown below.

Young`s rule: Age[in years] / (Age[in years] x 12) x Adult dose = Child`s dose

Clark’s rule: Weight[lb] / 150 x Adult dose = Child’s dose

If a mother is breast-feeding and would like to administer an herbal remedy to her infant, the dose would be for the mother to drink 1 teacupful and then breast-feed her infant. The herb will be transmitted through the breast milk. If preferred, cooled tea may be administered by a dropperful directly into the baby’s mouth. Different herbs should be taken for differing lengths of time.

Herbal Tea Infusion

An herbal infusion refers to an herbal preparation in which water is used as the solvent to extract the chemical compounds of the herbal medicine into the water. It is then taken internally. Fresh herbs are best for preparing herbal teas. Generally, three parts of fresh herbs are equal to one part of dried herb. So, if one teaspoonful of dried tea is recommended, three teaspoonfuls of herb may be substituted. An infusion uses the herb’s flowers, seeds, leafy parts, or roots that contain volatile oils (examples are valerian root and goldenseal root). Prepare them by steeping the plant parts in water, creating a concentrated herbal tea.

For a hot herbal tea infusion, bring fresh, cool water to a boil in a pot. In general, glass, enamel, stainless steel, or cast iron pots are preferred. Use 1 teaspoonful of dried herb to 8 ounces of boiling water. Let the herb sit and brew for about 10 minutes, strain, and cool. Examples of herbs to use in an infusion are chamomile, nettles, feverfew, and peppermint. (Always cover the cup when brewing peppermint tea to preserve the volatile oils.) For a cold herbal tea infusion (sun tea), place three tablespoons of herb and one quart of water in a glass jar and cover with a lid. Place in a sunny window for several hours, and voila! Strain and you’ll have a delicious tea.

Refrigerate any unused portions of herb tea. Infusions are not easily preserved and need to be kept refrigerated and used within a day or two.


A decoction is similar to an infusion, but it is used to brew the roots, barks, nonaromatic seeds, and twigs of plants. Bring fresh, cool water to boil in a nonmetal pot. Use 1 level teaspoon of roots, barks, twigs, or seeds to 8 ounces of water. Cover with a lid, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes. Then strain and cool.

Examples of herbs that can be used in a decoction are black cohosh root and kava kava root. Valerian root and goldenseal root should be infused rather than prepared as a decoction because of their volatile oils.

Refrigerate any unused portions. Decoctions are not well preserved and need to be kept refrigerated and used within a day or two.


A tincture is a concentrated herbal extract made by soaking an herb in alcohol, vinegar, or glycerine. The solvent extracts the chemical compounds of the herb. Tinctures are sold in small, dark bottles, usually 1 to 4 ounces, and are tightly closed with a dropper. A 1:5 ratio on the label means that the tincture contains 1 part herb (weighing one gram) to 5 parts (5 grams) of extract. Milliliters (mL) are used in dosages, and one mL is equal to one gram. One dropperful of a 1:5 extract means that five dropperfuls will be needed to get the dosage of 1 gram of herb. Tinctures may be used internally or externally.

Alcohol is the most commonly used of the three solvents. It extracts the active compounds of the plant, concentrates the herb, and acts as a great preservative. Commercial tinctures use ethyl alcohol. The herb’s active compounds are then extracted, and the alcohol acts as a preservative. The shelf-life of a tincture is from 3 to 10 years. Full-strength apple cider vinegar may be used also; it has a shelf life of 1 to 2 years.

Vegetable glycerine may also be used as a solvent to extract the active compounds of the herb. Glycerine is a better choice for those who prefer not to ingest alcohol, for diabetics, and for children. Glycerine is processed in the body as a fat, not a sugar, even though it has a sweet taste on the tongue. One caution is that if more than one ounce of glycerine is taken, it may cause a laxative effect. Glycerine is generally diluted with 50 percent distilled water. A small percentage of alcohol (5% to 10%) may be added to increase shelf-life. When glycerine is used as a solvent, the shelf-life is only about 6 months to 2 years. Glycerine should not be the solvent of choice for herbs that contain resins and gums; alcohol is needed to properly extract the active constituents of these herbs. Glycerine tinctures should be refrigerated for best effects.

Examples of herbs suitable for tincture are dandelion, valerian, St. John’s wort, peppermint, black cohosh, and chaste tree berry. Tinctures may be diluted in juice or water or placed directly on the tongue. Dosages are usually given by dropperfuls and vary in size. For an acute condition, such as a cold, 1 dose can be given every 2 to 4 hours. For chronic conditions, doses are given less frequently and need to be monitored by a health-care practitioner. If a patient is unable to take a tincture orally, it may be rubbed on the abdomen at three times the normal dose. It may also be added to the bath at about 10 to 20 times the oral dose.

Making Your Own Herbal Tincture

To make a tincture with dried herbs, fill a sterilized canning jar with finely chopped dried herb, leaving 2 inches of space between the herb and the top of the jar. (Or use one part herb to five parts solvent.) Pour solvent (usually vodka) into the jar until it covers the herb. Don’t let any of the plant parts extend above the solvent or they may become moldy. Label and date the jar and place it in a dark place at room temperature. Shake it daily. After about 6 weeks, strain the liquid through cheesecloth and squeeze out the residue. Place the tincture in small, dark tincture bottles, then label and date them.

You may also blend herbs and solvent in the blender and then place the resulting liquid into a wide-mouthed jar. For fresh herbs, the ratio is one part herb to two parts solvent because of the high water content of fresh herbs. Then follow the directions given previously.


Extracts come in three forms: fluidextracts, solid extracts, and standardized extracts. Fluidextracts use vinegar, glycerine, or glycol as a solvent and are more concentrated than tinctures. When herbal extracts are made commercially, more complicated methods of distillation are used at lower temperatures. During this process, some of the beneficial compounds of the whole plant (such as fiber) are discarded, leaving only the active constituent(s) to be standardized.

Solid extracts are extremely concentrated because the solvent is completely removed, leaving a soft solid or dry solid extract. The dry solid extract can be ground into a coarse or fine powder. During this process, as with fluidextracts, some of the beneficial compounds of the whole plant (such as fiber) are discarded, leaving only the active constituent(s) to be standardized. A fluidextract or tincture can then be made by diluting a solid extract with water or alcohol.

Standardized extracts are those that contain consistent amounts of specific plant compounds responsible for the plant’s health benefits. This standardized form is sold in Germany and is beginning to be sold in the United States. An example of an herb with standardized active chemical compounds is kava kava. The problem is that some of the chemical compounds responsible for health benefits are unknown in some herbs. In this case, marker compounds are used. Marker compounds are those that are found in the highest amount in the herb and are thought to have the greatest effect. Valerian is an example of an herb in which the specific chemical compound is unknown. The other problem with standardized extracts is that herbal potency varies among manufacturers’ products.

External Forms

External forms for application of herbs include herbal baths, oils, salves, ointments, poultices, compresses, and liniments.

Herbal Baths

Place about 6 ounces of dried or fresh herb in a small muslin sack and let it float in the bathtub while you are bathing. A tincture, decoction, or infusion may also be added to the bath at about 10 times the dose you would take by mouth. Examples of herbs to use in the bath are yarrow heads for fever (let them float freely) and chamomile, lavender, and rose petals for relaxation.

Herbal Oils

These products may be used for massages or to heal dry skin. Place 2 cups of olive, safflower, or canola oil in a glass or an enameled double boiler. Then place 3 ounces of herb — single or in combination — in the pot and simmer for up to 30 minutes. Do not boil; if you see the entire mixture bubbling or smoking, the oil is too hot. Afterward, strain and pour into small jars. For a calming, relaxing oil, use 1 ounce each of lavender flowers, rose petals, and chamomile flowers. For dry skin, use 2 cups of canola oil and 3 ounces of calendula flowers.

To make an herbal massage oil infusion, pick the herb, dry it overnight, and place it in a clean container. Cover it with extra virgin olive oil (thicker than other oils) or almond, sunflower, or safflower oil. Make sure that none of the plant parts extend above the oil or your oil will become moldy. Let the container sit in a sunny, warm window for about 2 weeks. Then strain and place the oil in pretty jars. An excellent herb for this type of oil is St. John’s wort. Pick the buds when the leaves are dotted with red spots. Your fingers will turn red as you pick them. Place the buds gently into a container and cover with oil. Place in a sunny spot and, in about 2 weeks, the oil will turn red. Strain it and use as a massage oil all winter for any type of strain, sprain, backache, or sports injury.

Herbal Salves

Herbal salves are used primarily for dry skin and healing of superficial wounds. To make a salve, place 1/4 cup of beeswax into the top of a double boiler. As the beeswax melts, add 1 cup of herbal oil, stir, and cool. Pour into small salve jars. Label and date the jars, and refrigerate them for shelf life.

Caution patients not to use herbal salves for deep or infected wounds. Tell them that signs of infection include redness, drainage, warmth in the area, and tenderness. Urge patients to contact a health-care practitioner immediately if the area looks infected or does not begin to heal within a few days.

For chapped lips or cold sores, consider making a lip balm by adding more beeswax than you would in a normal salve. The added beeswax increases the hardness of the salve. Red raspberry leaves and lemon balm are two herbs that are helpful for cold sores.

Herbal Ointments

Herbal ointments are also used topically for superficial wound healing. Add 3 ounces of herb to about 6 ounces of petroleum or nonpetroleum jelly. Let them simmer but not boil. Remove from heat, strain the herb using cheesecloth, and place in small jars. Label and date. Store in a cool, dark place. Ointments should last up to a month or longer. Examples of herbs that are great to use in ointment form are calendula for superficial wound healing, eczema and diaper rash; goldenseal for cuts to prevent infection, and comfrey for superficial wound healing. Do not use herbal ointments for deep wounds. Signs of infection include redness, drainage, warmth in the area, and soreness. If area looks infected, or does not begin to heal within a few days, please consult your health-care practitioner immediately.


A poultice is used externally to relax muscles or to ease minor skin eruptions, poison ivy, insect bites, superficial wounds, and inflammation. To make a poultice, mash fresh herbs in hot water and wrap the plant part in gauze. Cool it until it can be safely applied to the skin, then apply it to the affected area. Poultices may be applied up to three times a day. They can be made using:

• Goldenseal, which has astringent properties that are useful for infections. Make powder into a paste by mixing with warm water.

• Plantain (use fresh and apply directly to bee stings).

• Jewelweed (wonderful for poison ivy relief when used as a poultice or compress).

• Comfrey (helpful for superficial wounds and hemorrhoids when used as a poultice or compress.


Compresses are used externally and can be either warm or cold. Cold compresses reduce inflammation and help to relieve pain. They are used initially for sprains, contusions, strains, inflammation, headaches, and insect bites. Warm compresses are used to increase circulation to an area and to allow muscles, tendons, and ligaments to stretch. Warm compresses may be used for poison ivy also.

For a warm compress, prepare an infusion of herbs in hot water and then dip gauze or a cotton cloth into the infusion at the desired temperature and apply the cloth to the area. Or you can dilute a tincture in warm or cold water and then soak a cloth in the solution. Examples of herbs used for compresses include ginger (a warming, stimulating herb used to relieve inflammation) and cayenne (a stimulating herb that is excellent for muscle aches).


Liniments are for external use for aches and pains. Prepare the liniment the same way as you would a tincture, but use rubbing alcohol, witch hazel, or vinegar as the solvent. Place the herb(s) in a canning jar and cover with the solvent. Place the jar in a warm, dark area and shake it every day for 2 weeks. Strain it and store the liniment in dark bottles. Label and date the bottles.

Examples of herbs commonly used in liniments include yarrow leaf, wintergreen leaves, cayenne, plantain leaf, rosemary leaves, and yellow dock leaf and root. Do not use liniments on cuts or broken skin.